Yesterday afternoon, I decided to visit a site not ten miles away from RSPB Headquarters to do some birding. This was to be my sixth visit in recent days, and my target was a hitherto elusive bird of prey - a male Montagu's harrier.
These beautiful, rare breeding raptors have a unique elegance: long-winged and long-tailed, they hunt with light, elegant wingbeats, giving the impression of a distinctly delicate bird. These are not terms that one generally associates with birds of prey, but when compared with their more robust and powerful cousins: the marsh harrier and hen harrier, they appear lightweight and rather flimsy, yet purposefully studious when in pursuit of their prey.
My previous visits to the site had yielded several juvenile marsh harriers, a hen harrier, as many as four red kites, as well as numerous buzzards and kestrels. But still no 'Monty's.'
When I arrived, the weather was dismal; fine, soft drizzle that reduces visibility and enervates the spirit gradually, rendering distant perching raptors unidentifiable; blurry, colourless, nebulous forms giving no clues as to the character or identity of the creature. The best I could come up with for many was 'raptor spp.'
Within an hour, the damp humidity had given way to a sudden freshness, the skies clearing and azure patches of sky fought for dominance with the steel grey rain clouds. Now, these distant perching shapes took form and gave up their identities: buzzard, buzzard, marsh harrier, buzzard, all perched atop stunted trees punctuating the horizon. These still, lifeless shapes suddenly showed life, a buzzard spread its wings to dry them, cormorant-fashion. The marsh harrier shook its head and tail, stretched, and after two stiff wingbeats, glided on shallow v-shaped wings and disappeared over the ridge.
I scanned the horizon and birds appeared from the south - marsh harriers, and lots of them. In the course of 15 minutes, seven juvenile marsh harriers flew into view; large, powerful, all dark raptors with striking cream crowns. Two 'played' together, wheeling around each other and displaying mock bravado as they grappled with talons locked - behaviour indicating they were almost certainly siblings. I spent a further hour watching them, as they drifted in and out of view across the gently rolling countryside, but my target bird was again employing it's cloaking device and remaining invisible.
As I watched, a distant but distinctive song caught my attention, ''wet my lips, wet my lips!'' A quail: an elusive gamebird that is more often heard than seen. 2009 has been a good year for these late migrants, they are unusual birds in that they will first breed in Southern Europe during spring, before making another attempt in Britain and Northern Europe in summer - a phenomenon known as zwischenzug (or inter-season movement).
It was time for me to leave, and my notebook entry for the day was padded with seven marsh harriers, three buzzards, three kestrels and quail, but the words 'no sign of reported adult male Montagu's harrier again' appeared once again. As I drove home, a little dejected, my disappointment was brought into sharp perspective when I considered that in the year I was born (1971 seeing as you ask) there was only one pair of marsh harriers remaining in the whole of Britain, and that today, I had been watching seven, less than ten miles from the Lodge and many miles away from their East Anglian stronghold. Even ten years ago, this would have been unthinkable!
The work of my employer (of whom I am proud to be of service), other conservation agencies and landowners has helped to bring these magnificent birds back from the brink. The next time I see a marsh harrier, I'll do well to remember that, and not take them, or the efforts needed to conserve them, for granted.
Marsh harriers, as well as many other birds of prey, are starting to disperse from their breeding areas and can be seen almost anywhere over the next month or so. If you have an encounter with these birds, why not tell us about it here?
31st October 2009 I've just added a posting to my blog "Marshtit" about my feelings of joy at believing I have at last identified a Marsh Harrier, so I did a quick serve of the Net for other entries and enjoyed this site immensely. Thanks, Barbara